Ireland occupies an uneasy position when we look at our national weight heading towards becoming the fattest nation in Europe by 2030, a fact completely at odds with our troubled and bleak past with food. Over and undernutrition costs the state billions each year and as Dr. Marion Nestle says (Professor of Nutrition in New York University) the consumption of too many or too few calories is the single biggest issue with nutrition which threatens to overwhelm health care resources around the world: "Calories, therefore, affect societies in ways that are political as well as personal".
But more and more research is piling in that the quality of calories is more relevant than the quantity when it comes to good nutrition: comparing a small avocado to a Mars bar is hard to accept as "equal". But when you compare them calorifically, they are in fact very equal. As chefs, what is our role in health? How can we help educate our customers? Or is it even our job? I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Pitching foods as "healthy" needs to be backed up, but that leads to a bigger argument: what is healthy? For me, that means something like grilled fish with a pile of sautéed greens in butter, or a salad full of avocado, blueberries, spinach and walnuts with an olive oil dressing. For others, it might mean a vegan whole-wheat pasta dish with a low-fat tomato sauce or a grain-free dessert, full of dates. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve for your health in a personal sense: are you low carb? Low fat? Vegan, paleo or keto?
Shane Loughlin (Head Chef in the Mespil Hotel with an MSc in Culinary Nutrition) looked at providing QR codes on menu items that gave the macronutrient breakdown of menu items. Instead of solely focusing on calories, he focused on giving the customers information about the quantities of protein, fat and carbohydrates in each dish. Great feedback and increased orders ensued. We know customers are more knowledgeable and sophisticated than ever before, so if some restaurants want to offer information that helps customers make informed choices, that could be a smart thing to do in their respective business. But lumping in fast food companies with stand-alone restaurants is the wrong approach when it comes to policies to help tackle obesity. Instead, we need to be playing a bigger role in helping children learn to cook and embedding good, nutritional knowledge with practical cooking classes. Even the most ardent squabblers in the nutrition wars agree that learning to cook is one of the best ways to achieve better health. In making this happen, chefs are key. Nutrition is a relatively new discipline that shifts each year. Culinary Nutrition and Culinary Medicine are newer still, but increasingly, their importance in preventative health is being acknowledged. Lets us not be recipients of policies that are blunt and outdated, but better still, be at the forefront of change and meaningful solutions.
What do Chef Network members think is a good way to help tackle obesity? What can we do as chefs? Cooking in schools? Offer time to go in and give up 8 hours over a term to provide some basic recipes/lunchbox ideas based on a simple template we circulate?
Would be great to hear feedback from members on how many would be interested in doing this and what you think is needed to make it happen.